For the 2019 model year, Mercedes-Benz finally elected to update the G-Class—the only member of its current lineup still riding on a platform brought to life via slide-rules and long-division rather than the fully-digital design environments now commonplace throughout the industry.
Hewn from granite and dating back to a late-'70s military vehicle contract, the G-Class defined the term "anachronism" in a world that had long ago said good-bye to previous title holders like the Ford Crown Victoria and the Land Rover Defender.
In its new guise, Mercedes-Benz's most rugged SUV maintains its box-like styling, but underneath the skin walks the line between modern conveyance and rock-solid throwback. It's a tricky task to preserve the rough edges of a beloved low-volume icon while simultaneously bowing to the performance expectations of current customers and satisfying the nosy nature of federal regulators.
How faithful is the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 to its roots? And just how hard is it to build a dinosaur from modern DNA?
IT'S THE SAFETY, STUPID
There were several major bugaboos facing the G-Class as it edged closer to its fourth decade of near-unchanged production. Although the truck had seen numerous engine upgrades since its introduction in 1979, along with a general chassis refresh way back in 1990, its basic underpinnings had remained remarkably similar.
This posed a particular problem from a safety perspective, as the neverending creep of passenger protections began to dictate things like engine placement, driveline height, the air gap between the leading edge of the hood and the front of the long block, and side-impact strength. None of these requirements could have been slid into the current setup without significant cost.
It also would have been completely impossible to install the current set of advanced safety gear from the Mercedes-Benz portfolio without the decision to transition from the SUV's solid front axle to an independent front setup. The reason? Electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is required to bless a vehicle with equipment such as lane-keeping assistance et al, whose absence further isolated the G-Class from similarly-priced, but more feature-heavy rivals.
STILL WON'T BACK DOWN
The new front axle also figured prominently into the vehicle's famed off-road progress—but surprisingly, in a good way. By adopting the new setup, Mercedes-Benz was able to bake in better articulation, with close to 8 inches of wheel travel available. Overall travel is up at the rear of the truck, too, thanks to a 5-link suspension setup for the (still-malingering) live axle that offers just under 10 inches of total travel (sans anti-sway bar).
Ground clearance remains strong at 10.6 inches up front and 9.5 inches at the rear, with the new suspension mounting points making a difference in how much terrain can slide under the G550's frame. Also still in the mix: the three locking differentials (front, middle, rear) that take the place of any fancy-pants hill descent control or forward crawl feature by multiplying torque to the point where you can get out and walk beside the G-Class as it inches forward down a treacherous slope.
It all adds up to a truck that's just as capable—if not more so—when the going gets rough. For the tiny percentage of owners who will ever dust the wheels on anything rockier than a gravel farmer's market or golf course parking lot, that's a major plus, as the G-Class retains its off-road chops when so many of its similarly-sturdy brethren have either disappeared from the market entirely or been slowly gentrified.
MALL CRAWL ENHANCED
All of that chassis modernization has had another, perhaps more important effect on the G550's personality. Despite continuing to sport a ladder frame design more commonly found on full-size pickup trucks, Mercedes-Benz has leveraged the smoothness of an IFS with the versatility of the 5-link to overhaul the G-Class' character on the pavement.
It's an astounding transformation. Whereas once the truck's road manners felt more akin to a delivery van than a modern SUV, steering inputs now accurately translate into course changes, allowing the G-Class to set sail with increased confidence from the tiller. It's not sports car sharp, but it doesn't have to be—and it's a major step up from "survivable," which was the most accurate description of the older model's handling chops.
This is a relief once you figure in the G550's twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 engine. Power has never been an issue for the G-Class (once even available in a turbo 12-cylinder AMG edition) and this motor's 416 horses and 415 lb-ft of torque carry over from the year before (with 577 ponies on tap in the AMG G63 model). It's enough forward thrust to leave you grasping for whatever control you can find, and is combined with the new 9-speed automatic and rear-wheel drive biased four-wheel drive system to buttress the improved suspension system.
As mammoth as the G-Class' exterior proportions have always been, space management inside the cabin hasn't been a strong point for the SUV. The final piece of the redesign puzzle for Mercedes-Benz was to maximize passenger comfort within the relative similar confines of the vehicle's rectangular sheet metal. This was done by slightly extending the G550's wheelbase and pushing the back seats further into the cargo area. The end result? About six inches of extra legroom at the expense of hauling capacity, but it's a trade most G-Class owners would be willing to make to silence complaints from adults wary after being stuffed into the older model's cramped rear row. This is combined with an overall uptick in cabin refinement—assembled by hand in Graz, Austria, by technicians at Magna Steyr rather than Mercedes-Benz—and U-boat-level silence inside the cabin (until you stab the accelerator through the floor for a taste of the V8's throaty repartee).
The Silver Star has clearly spent a significant chunk of change updating its singular sauropod. At the same time, there's been just as much effort put into backdating the G-Class to placate the tastes of existing owners and maintain its legend as the thunder lizard that escaped the asteroid. It takes a lot of engineering expertise and executive willpower to look like you're calmly treading water in a swirling maelstrom of customer demands and rulebook realities.
Is it worth the effort? The G-Class is the definition of niche, even for a splintered Mercedes-Benz lineup dedicated to occupying every possible sub-segment. What's more, the GLS-Class sitting across the lot does every one of the G550's tricks—with the exception of the most hardcore off-road excursions—with a heap more poise and a third row of seating to boot.
And yet, in terms of styling and image, there's a chasm between the GLS and the G that could never be overcome with things like facts, figures, or common sense. The G-Class is more than a mascot for the brand's SUV program, it's a spirit animal. It's the final link the company offers in North America to a time when it seemed perfectly reasonable to mix military and civilian mission statements in the same showroom—and it's the one thing Mercedes-Benz has that not a single one of its competitors can claim to match.